The politicised history of Argentine football

The politicised history of Argentine football

FOOTBALL IS UNDOUBTEDLY the most feverishly followed sport in Argentina, much like its South American neighbours. However, Argentina is distinctive in that football and politics have remained inextricably linked throughout history and this uneasy marriage has at times threatened to detonate on the global stage.

Football, whether critics like it or not, is an extension of politics; it is part of the political system and it is often the case that a sporting issue rapidly becomes politicised. This is an examination of the history of politics and football in Argentina from the progressive Peronist policies of the 1940s, through the junta dictatorship which tainted the 1978 World Cup triumph, to the horror of the Falklands War and how it impacted football.

It was during the presidential tenure of Juan Perón that state intervention in football peaked. The policies of Perón were largely directed at expanding the appeal and strengthening the infrastructure of sport, and football became a main priority. Perón was eager to project a positive image of his country as political propaganda and thus sought to promote the importance of football in order to achieve this.

Perón was immensely popular with Boca Juniors. Fans regularly chanted “Boca, Perón, una Corazon” as a sign of his popularity. Perón saw the potential for harnessing the positive energies of sport for furthering an image of national pride and unity. His party coined slogans such as “Perón, The First Sportsman” and “Perón Sponsors Sports” to cultivate his image as a serial embracer of football.

Perón was shrewd; he saw the potential of football as a vehicle for political advancement. Attendances for football matches in Buenos Aires were at an all-time high during his tenure as president and Perón became aware that the football stadium was the perfect arena for which he could promote his ideals of social mobility and nationalism.

Having permeated the institution of football, Perón assumed command of the media, further driving home his populist policies. He replaced El Gráfíco, the leading Argentine sports magazine, with Mundo Deportivo as he believed the former had failed to adequately applaud his accomplishments in the world of sport. The new magazine was different. With complete control of its output, Perón was able to oversee editorials which regularly used the metaphor of the nation as a sports team, simultaneously driving forward his message of solidarity, teamwork and nationalism.

Considering the direct involvement of the Peronist regime in football, it is surprising to note that the Argentina national side did not travel to the Copa América in 1949 or the World Cup a year later. The reason for this was simple: Perón did not want his footballers to risk losing which he would have regarded as a national calamity. It was the domain of club football where Perón shaped the political and football landscape.

Perón’s finance minister Ramón Cereijo was a prime example of how people in privileged political positions can easily become benefactors for the teams they loved. Cereijo’s team was Racing Club and he helped the club by loaning them significant sums of money which was used in the purchase of players. Indeed, with the direct influence of Cereijo as a club ambassador and prominent benefactor, Racing claimed three successive titles from 1949 to 1951.

The example of the Peronist regime demonstrates the strong ties shared by football and politics in Argentina and it was in post-Perón era that the two really began to overlap. Perón’s government had laid the groundwork for future administrations to use football as a political tool, most notably the Argentine junta, headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla, which saw the Argentina-hosted World Cup in 1978 as a great political opportunity. Videla headed a military coup that assumed power in March 1976 following an economic crisis a year earlier, and his military dictatorship is widely regarded as one of the most violent examples of politics permeating football.

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Videla used the World Cup as a distraction from the raging ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina and hoped that success on the greatest football stage would aid in quelling political instability. The triumph for Argentina, helped in no small part by the goals of Mario Kempes, sparked a frenzy of national pride, but the tournament was shroud in controversy, stemming from suspicions that the military junta had fixed it. Although that has never been officially determined, what is clear is how the dictatorship ruled with terror and brutality.

By the start of the tournament in 1978, Videla’s junta was at its peak, exterminating rival parties and manipulating the national press and while millions absorbed the exciting footballing spectacle on their TV sets, thousands of political activists were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The World cup served as an elaborate mask for the murderous activities of Videla’s rule, with Argentina’s victory in the final confirming, in his eyes, a sense of national pride.

The influence of Videla’s dictatorship on football has been at the centre of much debate. There are many who point to the match between Argentina and Peru during that World Cup as a stark example of Videla’s manipulation and involvement. Argentina won the watch 6-0 and progressed to the final to meet the Netherlands but the story of the Peruvians did not stop there. Argentina needed to win by four goals otherwise they would be knocked out. The fact that they won 6-0 attracted suspicion that political actors were at play regarding the result. Legend surrounds this story that Videla struck a secret political deal with Peruvian president Morales Bermúdez that would see Argentina win the match comfortably. In return, Videla allegedly agreed to take Peruvian political prisoners into Argentina to “disappear them”.

Peru were a great team in 1978. They played with style and physicality, and boasted one of the best players at the tournament in José Velásquez. With Peru losing 2-0 at half-time to the Argentines, the country needed their talisman to spur a comeback and reach the final. Velásquez was substituted and did not reappear for the second half. Velásquez has openly stated over the years that he was substituted due to political pressure from the government. Velásquez insisted that the Peruvians were told that they were to lose the game. Peru’s captain, Héctor Chumpitaz, was also substituted to further pave the way for Argentina’s victory. He said: “Something happened. Our team was changed. I was changed in the tenth minute of the second half – when we were already losing by two goals. There was no reason to change me. I always was an important piece in our team. So what can one think?”

Videla apparently visited Peru’s dressing room prior to kick-off, fuelling speculation that he was the orchestrator of Argentina’s miraculous victory. There too were tales of Argentina providing free grain to Peru in return for their favour. Accounts of what exactly happened that day remain unconfirmed but the involvement of Videla’s junta in the World Cup on a wider scale is well documented and it again highlights the close relationship between politics and football in Argentina.

Less than a mile away from River Plate’s El Monumental stadium where the 6-0 victory was recorded stood the infamous Naval Mechanics School, where members of Videla’s military junta tortured and are believed to have killed more than 5,000 political opponents. Such was the spate of politically-motivated arrests that those who went missing, never to be seen again, were referred to simply as “the disappeared”.

Videla used the World Cup as a public podium and insisted that reports of his regime’s brutality were nothing more than an “anti-Argentine plot”. He even welcomed American politician Henry Kissinger to the tournament and received standing ovations at every match. Behind closed doors, however, his commanders dealt with activists in the most extreme fashion possible.

Just a thousand metres from the famed El Monumental lay one of the largest torture and detention centres of the dictatorship, so busy it saw approximately four thousand inmates processed by the torture machine. The military regime had many such centres – an estimated 340 in operation during its time in power. While football was being played on the pitch, torture was being practised off it. Prisoners at the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) could hear both screams of pleasure in the stadium and pain of torture being inflicted in the complex.

Over the years, members of the national squad have spoken out in lament at the obvious political entanglements of the ’78 World Cup. “There is no doubt we were used politically,” midfielder Ricky Villa said. Striker Leopoldo Luque echoed Villa’s sentiments by saying “with what I know now, I can’t say I am proud of my victory. But I didn’t realize, most of us didn’t. We just played football.”

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In retrospect, the 1978 tournament was a victory on many levels for Videla. With the team victorious, Videla had achieved a primary objective in displaying Argentina as a strong nation through the heroic exploits of their footballers while he drew attention away from the bleak economic climate and the horrifying actions of his junta.

The most resonating element of Videla’s involvement in football is that football and politics rarely have a happy ending. Through Videla’s dealings and alleged corruption with his Peruvian counterparts, the politicisation of football has left an indelible blemish on the collective consciousness. Players like Villa, Kempes, Luque and captain Daniel Passarella (pictured) have had to live with the idea that they did not win football’s greatest prize fairly, that some higher power worked to ensure their victory. As such, because of politics, the ’78 squad appear as inconspicuous footnotes in the history of Argentine football while the Maradona-led ’86 battalion are continually lionised.

Whereas the 1986 World Cup is celebrated to this day on the streets of Buenos Aires and beyond, with eulogies and tributes paid to Argentine football’s favourite son, Diego Maradona, on a daily basis, the 1978 World Cup lurks as a dark shadow over the nation’s history. The team that won it are not criminalised, but their involuntary association with a corrupt and brutal military regime left scars that are still raw 36 years later.

The actions of Videla’s rule can be paralleled to the existence of the barrabravas in Argentina, historically violent groups of fans with close political affiliations. These hardcore factions, who bear an external resemblance to European ultras, control Argentine football to a wide extent. They originated in the 1950s and began exerting their influence. 1958 was a watershed year for these groups as the killing of River Plate fan Alberto Linker portrayed the bravas as the highly volatile yet tightly institutional organisations that they are today.

The emergence and development of the bravas was aided by directors of Argentine clubs who paid members of the factions to “rule the terraces”. Those who didn’t follow the rules would lose the support of the stands. In a famous example, ex-Boca Juniors striker Jorge Rinaldi recalls how his life became a nightmare after he refused to attend a players’ dinner organised by La Doce (Boca’s barra): ”From that moment, every time I stepped foot on the pitch I was hit by waves of insults from the stands where the barra stood. It was as if I were one of the most hated enemies and not someone defending the club that they claim to love.”

Today, on top of free admission and travel to away fixtures, the barras, especially at the bigger clubs, earn a comfortable living from the sale of merchandising and refreshments, the control of parking around the stadium and the sale of tickets (at inflated prices). The bravas may look like hardcore football fans, but an examination of their make-up shows that they are an extension of politics, again representing the politicisation of football in Argentina.

There are four key elements which allow the barrabravas to thrive and profit; the state, the Argentina Football Association, the clubs, and the fans. Violence and the threat of violence maintain relations between the bravas, politicians and club officials. They have protection from the police which enables them to provide political support to club officials and politicians. Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing and San Lorenzo all have barrabravas, which highlights how the politicised nature of football fandom in Argentina exists at the highest levels. The military dictatorship of Videla from 1976-83 created an environment in which politics and violence in football could thrive.

Through the establishment of Peronism and the use of football as a political vehicle, through to the violent and treacherous dealings of General Videla’s dictatorship and finally the notorious history of the hundreds of barrabrava groups in Argentine football, it is clear to see that football and politics in Argentina share a tumultuous but closely intertwined history.

Due to the obsessive, near-religious footballing culture in Argentina and South America as a whole, political leaders have used football as an expression of nationalism and pride, and as a stage for which to project an image of unity and strength whilst covering up a dark and terrifying brutality at the core of a dictatorship.

The barrabravas are an example of the political legacy alive in modern football in Argentina. They maintain close links with politicians and club officials while ruling the terraces of stadiums around the country, duly getting paid for their services.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11